April 26, 2009

Reflecting on San Diego's On the Ground

Home again....and feeling very fortunate to have work that I believe is so right with the world and that connects me to the community of people who share with my values and passion, keep my curiosity AND my faith alive, and challenge me to think bigger and look beyond the next bend.

I'm home from San Diego where I spent two days with forty colleagues exploring the path from resident engagement to resident ownership, with the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation as our home base. These were the two days that Grassroots Grantmakers designed to help funders who are working from a "we begin with residents" perspective to explore the path from resident engagement to resident ownership of change. I've written earlier about Grassroots Grantmakers' idea for "on the ground" gatherings so won't give a blow by blow.

Instead, here are some excerpts from the notes that I took over those two days and a quick video that I made with animoto.com, using photos that Kristin Senty, my Grassroots Grantmakers' colleague, took while we were there.

From Jennifer Vanica, CEO/President of the Jacobs Center:
On taking risks.....
The times of greatest challenge, that's the time of greatest innovation.

The first person who says "it can't be done" will be fired.

On the role of the foundation.......
Because we want to inspire creativity, we have had to change ourselves.

On collaboration....
We are working across disciplines that tend to go back to their own corners when left to themselves. That's why we are trying to create structures that tie disciplines together at the hip.

On the Jacob's Center's role......
Our work is about creating platforms for change, helping people believe that their future can be different.

On how the Jacob's Center is positioned as a place-based change-maker......
We walk right down the middle of the non-profit, for-profit divide.

On an essential early learning.....
It became clear early on that we would not have any impact beyond our lifespan if we just made program grants.

On how they work....
We learned to plan/implement, plan/implement......and to plan in 90 day increments.

On planning.....
We flipped the paradigm from developing a plan and then seeking buy-in to first seeking resident input and buy-in, and then working together to develop the plan.

On how they think about their work......
Every piece of our work has four dimensions - social, economic, physical and political.

On how they know where to focus their energy.....
When barriers to what we want to achieve surface, we marshall our forces and attack those barriers.

On their philosophy of working with the community.....
We work side by side, doing with, not for.

The underlying philosophy that guides the work of the Jacobs Center.....
For change to be sustainable, residents must own their own change - they must own the vision, own the plans, own the implementation, and own the assets.
From Bevelynn Bravo, resident leader:
I remember waiting for someone to come in and make changes, but I didn't realize that I was waiting for myself.
Roque Barros on the motivation for change:
We don't care if you came for the wrong reasons....we want you to stay for the right reasons.
So now that you have a taste of the conversation, take a look at a snapshot of our experience together, "on the ground" in San Diego:

April 21, 2009

What It Takes

Today has been one of those insanely busy days that are only possible with chocolate and adrenalin. I'm past tired and it's late, but I can't resist sharing a conversation that I had at the beginning of the day with a grassroots grantmaking colleague.

We were catching up, talking about how her work was going and then here it came - the most thoughtful description I have ever heard of the the "right person" to manage a grassroots grantmaking program. She was talking about the person that her foundation hired to do the day to day management of their grassroots grantmaking program. She said that this person had not been the conventional choice for the position, but that she had proved to be the ideal choice. She then began to list the qualities that made this person so ideally suited to this work.

If you're thinking about staffing a grassroots grantmaking program - and we know that the right staffing is perhaps the most critical choice in the this highly relational type of grantmaking - pay attention. Courtesy of my anonymous colleague, here's who you are looking for:

The best investment you can make in your grassroots grantmaking program is finding someone who:
  • Is as comfortable around a dining room table as they are around a board room table.
  • Loves people - not just the idea of people - but the reality of people.
  • Respects rules and structure, but isn't in awe of (or in service to) rules and structure.
  • Is warm and genuine, but can hold people accountable and be firm.
  • Has the ability to be in the moment but not lose the big picture.
  • Can spot roadblocks and enjoys finding ways to bust through or navigate around them.
  • Is fun.
Do you know this person? If so, you know someone who is uniquely suited to the work of grassroots grantmaking. Go get them! You won't be sorry.

April 20, 2009

Grassroots Grantmaking Writ Large

I'm packing today to head to San Diego for a gathering of funders that Grassroots Grantmakers is sponsoring at the end of the week in San Diego. This is our second "on the ground", following our Chicago gathering early last fall. With these gatherings - not the perfect word, but I haven't found it yet - we're building on our strong belief in two things: 1) the power of time for peers to be together, away from their day to day over packed schedules, and 2) the power of learning in context, looking at and talking about real work, people, dilemmas and time lines.

I loved what happened in Chicago last fall. I can't wait to get to San Diego. I can't wait to dig in to "grassroots grantmaking writ large" with the fabulous group of people who will be assembling there on Thursday. We're expecting 40 people from 16 cities and 22 different organizations - all engaged in grassroots grantmaking or moving in that direction.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days with the team at the Jacobs Family Foundation and the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (our hosts for this this week's "on the ground") last summer. This was my second visit in 4 years. I was really impressed by what I saw the first time. Completely blown away by what I saw and heard the second time. I left San Diego thinking about grassroots grantmaking "writ large". Here was a picture of "we begin with residents" on the wide screen with surround sound.

There are three things that stand out for me about last summer's visit. One was how Jennifer Vannica (Jacobs Center's President and CEO) described the Jacobs Family Foundation's evolution as a place-based funder. Jennifer talked about beginning where funders normally begin - funding nonprofit organizations. She talked about realizing over time that focusing on funding nonprofits and building nonprofit capacity was not the answer - that even the nonprofits who were already working in the neighborhood were not well-positioned to do was needed to create the change that people in the community wanted. She talked about the subtle but powerful shift in focus from organizations to place - with everything and everybody in that place as needed in the creating change picture.

I also remember seeing the deep commitment to creating on-ramps and pathways for residents to imagine, create, test-drive and operate vehicles of community change. This was the best example that I had seen of taking "resident-driven" seriously. Top to bottom, residents were not only engaged, but at the center.

The other stand-out for me was how different the conversation felt when the foundation's money came up. The Jacobs Family Foundation is planning to sunset in 30 years. Thirty years is a lot of time but not much time when you think about creating large scale change in a neighborhood, and embedding that change (and the vehicles that create change) in the community so that it endures and is community owned. I felt an urgency to the work, a consciousness that the clock is ticking and that it is important to pay attention to the possibilities and roadblocks that show up every day. And if money was what was needed, it was there - not in a throwing money at a problem way but in responsible investing way.

I'm excited that later this week, I'll have the opportunity to be there again, "on the ground" with people who want to take the next step down the "we begin with residents" pathway and are excited about the journey. I'll share the experience here on this blog.....stay tuned.

April 13, 2009

A Simple Way to Jazz It Up

Are you looking for another way to tell the story of grassroots grantmaking? To illustrate the power of people coming together to weave a tapestry of community change? To acknowledge the people who are doing the work?

Check out my favorite new online tool at www.animoto.com. You'll find an on-line tool that creates amazing videos for you. I'm not kidding. It does it for you.

Betty Alonso, Grassroots Grantmakers' new board chair and Associate Program Director at the Dade Community Foundation, recently told me about animoto. I was preparing for the annual retreat of the Grassroots Grantmakers board and looking for a way to give a quick update of our work over the past year and set an up-beat tone for the rest of the meeting. Betty suggested animoto.com. Bingo, I was in business.

Check out what I produced with just a few clicks and some music. And imagine how you can use this to tell your community's story of grassroots grantmaking at grantee meetings, grantmaking committee meetings, and meetings of your board.

What other tools have you discovered that help tell the story of your work? Please share!

April 9, 2009

Taking It Seriously

It happened to me again today. I was working up some notes from a recent Grassroots Grantmakers board meeting and was reminded of the annoying tenacity of one of the members of our board in our network's early years. Ira Resnick was Senior Program Officer at the Community Foundation of New Jersey and Vice-Chair of the Board of the organization that grew to be Grassroots Grantmakers. I didn't know Ira well and didn't have the opportunity to get to know more about him, as Ira had a health problem that resulted in his way-too-early death. But I think about him often.

Why? Ira was the one on the board who was always ready with a challenge, and the challenge was usually about taking the work of grassroots grantmaking seriously - about thinking big enough. He chafed at the logo we were using in those days that featured a picket fence as its centerpiece. Picket fences were not what Ira had in mind when he thought about neighbors getting together. Change was what was on his mind.

Ira had the irascible ability to jump in when I was feeling oh-so-smug and lift up the next challenge. Why not think of our network as a national organization instead of a modest network? Why not play with other national organizations? Why not stand tall, center-stage for what we believe in instead of trying to hold on to the safer spot at the edge? Why not bring words like power and change into our conversations about neighbors and strengthening social fabric?

Before I met Ira, I imagined that I could measure up to any big thinking conversation. But he helped me realize that in trying to carve out a niche for grassroots grantmaking inside the philanthropic organization where I was working, I had too often equated "safe" with "smart", and "safe" led me down a "small-thinking" path rather than a "big-thinking" path. I was working hard to hold onto the small pool of money that had been devoted to small grants for neighborhood groups - thinking that buying some time by not ruffling any feathers would lead to a time when I had enough evidence to present that the skeptics couldn't help but see that the investment in small grants had merit. I missed the boat when I thought that a gigantic stack of small accomplishments could change the minds of people who were looking for something big. I missed the boat by not thinking big enough. I was thinking way too small to do the big thing that I was well-positioned to do.

So here I am again today, thinking of Ira. We are at the cusp of entering a new chapter as Grassroots Grantmakers, and like all beginnings, this beginning will take some courage. And, we are entering this new chapter at a time when funders everywhere are revisiting their priorities and targeting investments to the things that come out on top. In these times, we all need an Ira in our corner, calling to us to think big enough about the small things.

Ira reminded me that unless I can think it, I can't do it. In the times when I forget that I can indeed think it, that's when I remember Ira. With gratitude.

April 8, 2009

Tony Macklin on Measuring Resident Engagement

Tony Macklin is a colleague who has a wonderful eye for new ideas and resources. He sent a note to me last week about a new publication, and I followed with an invitation to Tony to be my guest to write about this piece on this blog. I'm delighted that he accepted the invitation - thanks, Tony!

Measuring Resident Engagement
by Tony Macklin

“How do you know resident engagement work is successful?”

This question gets posed to all grantmakers and community benefit organizations that support community building and citizen participation work. It’s a tough one to answer. And, I know from experience that sometimes staff want to say to the board or donors, “Well, if you’d just attended the community meeting with me last night, you’d have seen the answer for yourself and been inspired.”

If that answer won’t work (it didn’t for me), then you’ll want to read and steal (umm…replicate) answers from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s recent report, “Sustaining Neighborhood Change: The Power of Resident Leadership, Social Networks, and Community Mobilization.

The practical, 36-page guide makes the case for growing and tapping into Authentic Demand, “the individual and community capacity to define, articulate, and work for results.” The guide stresses that growing Authentic Demand requires supporting a blend of these approaches:
  • Building leadership development skills, and expanding and diversifying the pool of leaders
  • Building strong social networks
  • Mobilizing community members toward action
  • Increasing civic participation in local political and policymaking processes
The guide provides good examples, short case studies, and resource lists for growing these approaches based on the work of communities participating in the foundation’s Making Connections Initiative.

As importantly, the guide provides help in measuring Authentic Demand along a set of indicators for six outcomes for community members and community-based organizations: voice, accountability, identity, reciprocity, choice, skills and capacity.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation presents the ideas within the context of their work to improve the lives of children and families living in tough neighborhoods. However, the ideas are easily translated to other organizations, whether your work is about resident engagement as an end unto itself, or as an important part of a strategy around health, arts, education, or other fields.

I found the guide an important addition to the growing set of ideas in the field on measuring community building and citizen participation work. It could also serve as a good overview reference for staff new to supporting and evaluating that work.

What other great guides have you seen? Would it be useful to have all of the ideas on indicators listed in one place?

More about Tony:

Tony is a former all-purpose foundation staffer turned consultant (though he dreads that word), now residing in Pittsburgh. In interest of transparency, one of his clients is the Annie E. Casey Foundation though the foundation did ask or pay him to write this post. Tony also serves on the
Grassroots Grantmakers Board of Directors.

April 6, 2009

Another Wrinkle to this New Economy

I just heard from Lisa Leverette who manages The Skillman Foundation's grassroots grantmaking program (which is part of their Good Neighbors Program). I sent a query out last week via Grassroots Grantmakers listserv, asking what funders are doing now to make the "now more than ever" case for grassroots grantmaking in these economic times. What I just heard from Lisa alerted me to a new wrinkle in the challenges that we are all facing in this economy. And by "we", I mean all of us who care about people coming together as active citizens in urban neighborhoods and rural communities.

Over the past several weeks, I've pointed to the importance of maintaining or even increasing the resources available for people who are working together at the block level in their neighborhoods and towns. I've been talking about the supply side of the grantmaking equation - assuming that the demand for resources will be greater than ever, and that people are ready to be more active than ever - responding to a new set of challenges (foreclosures, for example).

What I just heard, however, was that at least in Detroit, demand for small grants is down.

What? And why? Here's a thumbnail of the picture that Lisa described:
  • People are now taking second jobs, working longer hours and doing what it takes to deal with their own personal financial woes in the "spare time" that they have devoted or would otherwise devote to their neighborhood and community.
  • The actual hard costs associated with "doing" are going up. Cost to rent space for meetings and events has nearly doubled (probably in response to falling revenues in other areas - churches and community centers are struggling to make ends meet too). Transportation costs are way up.
  • There is less pocket change to add to the till. People who have been contributing money from their pockets to pay for the little things that go with doing things as a group of neighbors just don't have the extra money to contribute. So they're not stepping forward.
  • More informal groups are taking steps to become "official", seeking their 501(c)(3) status - thinking that this status will put them in line to receive the bigger grants that they now need to handle higher costs and less volunteer time. So now these groups will be competing with established, fund-raising-savvy nonprofits who themselves are struggling for survival in this environment of diminishing resources. Yikes.
Of course this makes perfect sense. And of course someone, some where, is going to interpret this as a good reason to put grassroots grantmaking on hold. Probably someone who was on the look-out for a reason - now grabbing onto this situation to make the case that the lower demand is an indication of a lack of interest or need for the funding support.

But it's not that easy. Lisa also said that people are saying that they want to be involved, that they are wishing for a time when they can once more be involved. They're sorry that they can't make it work right now. The demand is in their hearts, but the barriers that are in their way have become too large to hurdle.

If it's about more about roadblocks than demand, how do funders respond to the combination of factors that is making it challenging for people to step out as active citizens?

Here are a few things that Lisa says they are doing in Detroit:
  • more outreach - both to new groups who might not be aware of the opportunity to seek funding and to groups who have been doing the work for a while and have some maturity and experience navigating ebbs and flows of participation and dollars;
  • more outreach to businesses - investigating options such as using the number of groups receiving grants to negotiate some "joint purchasing" deals that might make it possible for groups to get better prices for things they need;
  • more and deeper conversations at grantmaking committee meetings about the challenges that groups are facing;
  • revisiting questions such as how often a group should be eligible to receive funding, whether stipends should be awarded to volunteers, what "out of pocket" expenses are eligible for reimbursement, etc.
This list speaks volumes about commitment to the notion that people, not programs, make our communities work.

But this is one case in one place. I'm interested in hearing what are you are seeing on the "demand" side of the small grants equation? And what are you doing to clear away the new or more daunting barriers that people are encountering?